While reading an essay narrating another desperate protest by rational people — this time explaining why some UK climate scientists felt driven to glue their bodies to government buildings — I had an epiphany. Not a good one. As I sat there contemplating the lengths that we go to and the relatively meagre results of those actions, I came to see that protest hardly ever achieves its aims. Certainly, there is much less result than action.
Yes, there was the success of non-violent resistance in India, and the civil rights movement in the US had positive effects. But in all the successes — and there are not many — any desired results are usually a byproduct of other societal changes. These perhaps are influenced by protest. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the ideas that protesters put into the soil find root eventually through other means and are not usually of obvious benefit to the protesters or to their goals. For example, India came about more because the British Empire was collapsing. It is fortunate that Gandhi stepped into the power vacuum, but as we can see today his movement did not create lasting egalitarianism.
Permanent change of attitudes and systems happens rarely and usually only when it benefits those in power, not out-group protesters. More often than not, a “successful” protest movement results in changes limited to names and surfaces that enable those in power to feel good about themselves, to publicly present themselves in a certain fashion — and, more importantly, to accrue benefits from that pose. But short of the guillotine, protest rarely affects the balance of power. And even then, those with capital, social or economic, and who manage to keep their heads soon pick up the crown, taking on new titles.
Consider the civil rights movement. Yes, lynchings are decidedly less common (is that really a victory to celebrate?), and until recently it was somewhat easier for non-white people to vote in the US. This came about not because those in power suddenly recognized the error of their racist ways but because racism became economically and politically unpalatable in some populous and therefore politically powerful geographic areas. With the Great Migration out of the rural South, it became less savvy to be openly racist in Northern and Western urban regions. (Similarly, as industry sought to capitalize on the labor of women, it became less economically intelligent to support misogynist policies.) But has any deep change to the balance of power taken place? Are there any shifts toward true egalitarianism? Has life been measurably improved for the descendants of the protesters? And has there even been a whisper of restitution for centuries of slavery and oppression? No. Emphatically no. Not only will you suffer from racial profiling and redlining and high levels of stress and inferior quality in everything from schools to food; but if you are a Black American, you will die fully ten years before non-Hispanic white people. This seems to me to represent an epic failure of civil rights.
I am not criticizing the protesters. Nor even the impulse to protest. I am that person too. I’ve sat in tree stands, laid in body bags in public places, spent time in jail. I’ve written countless letters to editors, called congress people and other officials, signed petitions and given money to organizations that are primarily engaged in protest. Believe me, I understand the deep need to do something visible, something desperate to make your voice heard, something dramatic to get some version of truth into the public eye. But none of it does. Who even remembers Earth First! or that there were massive protests against the Gulf War? Did my arrests save even one acre of forest or stop one bomb from raining down on innocents? No. Again, emphatically no.
The fundamental problem with protest is that it is doing nothing. Protest is a choreographed bullhorn and not much else. Perhaps, if it’s a slow news day, somebody besides your close relatives and friends might be aware of your actions, but you are still accomplishing nothing because you are doing nothing. Protest is theatre, and as such has about as much effect on society as Ibsen and Williams… eventually, the performance’s message might penetrate if it’s appealing enough and if it already fits within the dominant world view. But physical changes are well outside the scope of protest.
To effect real change you have to do something to create those changes. Change is work, not theatre. If you want tangible benefits, you have to craft something more tangible than a message. Change requires building social and physical infrastructures, creating new ways of doing things, making new actual things — like orchards and vegetable patches, care networks, heat pumps, mini-hydropower generators, rooftop solar panels, car-share cooperatives — as well as ideas. And certainly you can’t rely on those in power, those who benefit from the status quo, to do this work for you. In fact, to a very large degree, those who have the power to get this work done (though they won’t actually do it themselves) are not even aware of your message. If your protest actions are on their radar at all, it is as an irritant that must be removed. And that is the work that those in power set in motion… deal with the protesters, not with the protest message.
You see, part of the problem is that the message never reaches the right people, those with the power to set change in motion. Consider my body bag episode. I was arrested that day for obstructing the right of way on the county courthouse steps and for being a public nuisance. I was not arrested for trying to show the world the injustice in the Gulf War (because even in this country that would be an illegal arrest…). I was an annoyance that was scooped up, prodded into a van with all my fellow protesters, and dumped at the jail one block away. In spite of contacting every news outlet we could well beforehand, there was little coverage of our actions. Some people going to the courthouse that winter day might have felt inconvenienced by us. Mostly I think any observers were merely bemused and then dismissive. (It was a college town; these things happened…) But even if we had reached into the hearts and minds of the average citizens that day, would any progress toward our stated aims have been made? Would we have stopped even one death for oil? No. Because those average citizens could do nothing to affect the war even if we had changed their minds.
But let’s say that we had been successful at reaching hundreds who then went home and immediately took their congressional representatives to task for permitting this atrocity. What then? Well, again, likely nothing. Because the people who have to deal with the annoying public — as in the protesters and concerned citizens — are not those who make any decisions. The police who come to arrest you have no power to change things. The congressional aides who monitor phones and email are probably not even known to the politicians they serve. When courts get bunged up with trials and paperwork, those people who have to cope with the extra workload are not those who make any decisions, who hold real power. Even the judges in these small courts have approximately zero control over the situations that we protest — though they can at least choose which laws to enforce and which to ignore. Still… this is not lasting change. Protest is reaching into the hearts of nobody who could do something lasting — and those people would not do anything even if protest messages reached them.
This is the basic problem with focusing on crafting a message rather than on crafting real change. Protest is aiming to annoy or entice people in order to bring about that change. And those who have power to effect mass change, those who could bully the world into doing as they wish, do not wish to see any changes. They benefit from our current state of affairs; they lose if things change. They aren’t going to be persuaded through annoyance or appeals to better angels. They probably aren’t going to be persuaded at all. As long as there are wild benefits to those who practice atrocity on this planet, atrocity will continue to happen. Change must be forced on those who are benefitting from the status quo.
But it is worse… if we could force those in power to act against their interests, even they may not be able to do much, because the changes that need to be made are not merely the matter of enacting a few rules and regulations, not merely the cessation of certain acts and policies, not merely a shift in perception — though all those things need to happen. As we learned from the civil rights movement, policies are not enough to effect lasting and tangible change. It is not enough to create a few new rules without touching the physical and cultural structures that make up society. Those new rules are easily ignored and, as we’re learning with body sovereignty for women, will be repealed as soon as it is politically feasible if the ruling group sees no benefit from those rules.
However, as a thought experiment, let’s pretend that protest could inspire some new rules. Would that change be enough to meet the goals of the protesters, even in the short term? Probably not. These are not short term problems, nor are they easily fenced off into neatly confined problems that can be addressed individually. To make change that would create the livable world sought by the science protesters, by women worldwide, by those reaching for economic justice? These goals can’t be reached in isolation. Those changes are all interwoven into one; and that change, as Naomi Klein has shown, is everything.
This is why protest rarely achieves much. It aims to persuade the implementation of change on a part here or an idea there. It does not — generally — aim to uproot the whole system; and in order to create lasting change in any given part, we need to physically and socially overhaul the entire system. You can’t fix one part of your body without addressing disease and disfunction in the rest of the organism. And that is what protest tries to do — change the heart, not heal the body.
And these changes that need to be made now? They are systemic and pervasive and interdependent and overwhelming. We can’t isolate and fix any one part because all the parts are related; and unfortunately, there are many parts that we can’t fix at all. We certainly can’t fix one thing without fixing all the things that affect that one thing. For example, you can’t even talk about change to the parts of the system that are leading us to biophysical collapse without addressing the social injustice that enables most of those biophysical stresses. You can’t do one without the other because they are both aspects of the same root problem. There is no part of this system — from civil rights to war to logging and industry — that will be changed as parts within the system. For any part to be made whole, the whole thing needs to go.
So far, protest is not aiming at the entire system. Well, perhaps Greta Thunberg is, but even with her high profile and loud (quiet) voice, has she effected any change? No. Because for all her charismatic appeal, she is not actually doing anything. She is trying to persuade those in power to do something. And they don’t want to change things… they’re in power in this system. Why would they want it to change? We must force them… or we must undermine them.
That said, protest is not designed to do anything so concrete as force or undermining. It is not actually doing anything to bring down the current regime and set something up in its place. You can’t do any of that work in a protest. You have to actually go do those things. You have to stop participating in the system, and you have to build new systems to replace it. This is not the work of one afternoon or even one year of afternoons. This is a change of life. Protest can not force that change of life on those in power. We outsiders, we who want to see the changes, have to be the changes (forgive the cliché, but it is a pretty good one). We must do this work. We can still protest, still aim to persuade more people to join us, but this protest is not going to achieve those goals if we don’t mainly work to make those goals happen.
The glued scientists were acting in concert with an organization called Just Stop Oil. I fully support their stated goals. Stop enabling fossil fuel extraction. Stop building more of this toxic infrastructure. Just stop oil. But is that enough? Is this change, the halting of licensing new extraction, is this enough? Well, it’s a beginning. But no, it’s not going to change much of the system. It is good to call out the politicians that are greasing the wheels, but this protest action, even if it successfully stops new licensing, does not reduce the need for oil and the profits that can be made in meeting that need. The real work is building up the physical and social infrastructure that will make oil extraction unprofitable.
To truly stop oil, we can’t just halt new ventures. It won’t even matter if we all turned down the thermostats and stopped driving gas-powered cars. To have more than a negligible effect on the fossil fuel industry, we must insist on shutting down the shipping of all things, we must cull military expenditures, we must power down our utilities, we must stop the manufacture of just about everything, we must, we must, we must… and and and… “Just” stopping oil entails an enormous amount of actual work. And, of course, protest achieves none of that. Though it may, perhaps inadvertently, persuade people to do that actual work.
Note that the aim of Just Stop Oil is to stop licensing new drilling ventures. Their message is directed at those in power. They seem to want a top-down solution. But the actual work that is necessary to achieve an oil stoppage? …is not going to be done by those who benefit the most from not doing it. The people who may truly create the necessary life changes are not those at the top. They are us, those with little political power as individuals, but enormous economic power when acting in concert, when doing actual things with our lives and our resources. We can change the system because we create it. With every one of our thoughts and acts.
If we want to stop oil, then we need to build our own oil-free lives. We need to eliminate our need for oil. And we need to do this. We can’t rely on top-down solutions because the top is not going to voluntarily plunge off their elevated tower of power. We need to stop the flow of oil into our lives by physically changing our own lives.
Of course, many of us have little control over oil flow. We don’t own our homes; we don’t have the means to buy electric cars; we don’t live where our feet, our bikes or public transport can get us to our jobs, which we also have little control over. But this is where those who protest might do real good. If you have the time and resources to glue yourself to a government building, consider instead doing something to help those who can’t easily wean themselves off oil. (Given that you, yourself, have already done that…) Go build something that will meet human needs without oil. Feed people. Plant gardens. Create shelter and clothing and give it away. Make a free neighborhood care group. Orchestrate street parties. Organize cooperative ventures and buy-outs of land and property. Most importantly, learn how to live abundantly with less from those who have less.
And when that work is “done”, there are more things to address beyond oil addiction…
The point is that all these actions have tangible and lasting effects. The less people need oil, the less oil will be drilled regardless of political will. Moreover, you will find that as you learn to live without oil and help others do the same, you will be forced to work on other problems at the same time. You will be addressing more than just oil flow when you make sure that your neighbors have insulated homes and bellies full of healthy, locally produced food. And the cumulative effects of these changes will be nothing short of catastrophic to the system that holds us in chains now. This is how we undermine the top. This is how we create alternatives. This is the change that protesters would see in the world. So maybe not just stop oil, but… just stop…
Aristophanes had the right idea back in 411 BC. His play, Lysistrata, was a story of protest. In this tale, Lysistrata convinces a large gathering of women from many Greek city-states to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers until the men agreed to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War. I’m not sure if Aristophanes meant for this to be anything but a hilarious examination of the plight of women in a male-dominated society, but I think it might be worthwhile to give this idea a trial — though I would withhold everything until those in “power” capitulate. In such dire straits as being without child care, coffee, auto repair, jet piloting, avocado toast, house cleaning, dinner, and so on, they would be “power”-less to stop us — or to stop the disintegration of the system that is their power base, thereby halting all the destruction that flows from that system.
Know this: those in power are there because we put them there. We can withhold that power as well. We can refuse to participate in the system that feeds, clothes, houses and, yes, gives sexual pleasure to these people. We can abandon this oppressive system and all those who profit from it. We can turn away from the top and focus all our efforts and resources on meeting our own needs at the base of this pyramid.
We can just… stop…
Not just in protesting, but by doing the real work in creating a new system.
Just imagine where that political action would lead us!
©Elizabeth Anker 2022